How I have become a non-licensed, on-call therapist for the many anxieties that a residential move provokes—and why you should endeavor to let the professionals take charge.

For the past 14 years, I have been helping people to navigate their residential moves. It is not a secret that moving is one of life’s traumas, but what people fail to recognize are the subtle and sometimes subversive effects a move has on the personalities of the people involved. I’ve seen the following personality transformations take place, triggered by the stress of a move:

  • A shy and retiring homemaker suddenly takes charge and is on a mission, directing the process like a stage manager with a clipboard—and inadvertently slowing down the whole show.
  • A normally open, cordial host becomes private and possessive, and doesn’t want strangers in their home touching their belongings.
  • A confident, capable, organized individual becomes paralyzed and overwhelmed by the unknown, and is unable to make simple decisions.
  • A successful and decisive business leader who manages a corporation at the highest level can’t cope with managing a 4-5 man moving crew.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. I have seen big spenders who resent tipping the moving crew; skinflints who over-tip the moving crew; homeowners who do not want the moving crew to enter their new homes with their shoes on even though we have covered all the rugs with rolls of brown paper; and even homeowners who refuse to let anyone use the bathroom.

These situations all arose from clients who are, under normal circumstances, perfectly nice and reasonable people. It’s as if the sight of a stack of moving boxes awakens latent emotions and dormant fears and insecurities. So radical is the shift, sometimes, that one would think these clients are quaffing some of Dr. Jekyll’s potion, or have been bitten by a radioactive spider that drops from the ceiling when the moving vans pull up—only this sort of spider doesn’t deliver superpowers, but a tendency toward helpless hand-wringing and anxiety.

When I work with clients on a move, we generally start our collaboration at least 6 to 8 weeks prior to the move, and frequently sooner than that. The set up for a move involves several visits with myself, the owner(s) or representative(s) of the moving company(ies), my assistant(s) and any other third parties that will need to be involved such as electricians, handymen, architects, and contractors. It all starts very smoothly and is a process that is planned out carefully; I promise that I do not lay any surprise traps to throw the homeowner into a downward spiral. Quite the contrary. So, what on earth happens to Ms./Mr. Congeniality along the way? It is impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all answer. However, my theory is that troubles arise when people are unwilling to relinquish control. They try to tough it out and overcome their very personal history, which now throws them into a tailspin. If ever there is a time to delegate, it is when you are moving. 

Why Do We Move?

Most people move very infrequently. Moving is rarely considered a “fun” activity, so people tend to avoid it unless they experience a change in life circumstances, such as a relocation to a new town, a growing family, a divorce, an empty nest, the death of a loved one, or sometimes unexpected financial straits.

My average client has been in situ for a minimum of 15 to 30+ years. Yes, there are a few that move every 7 to 10 years because they do not like to live through major painting, floor refinishing, or renovating.  If they decide they need to have major work done that would require them to pack up and vacate, they would just as soon relocate into a new, refreshed home. But these are the exceptions.

Since many of my clients last made a big move a decade or two ago, they have conveniently forgotten what it entails. And moving has changed a lot in the intervening years. Thanks to computers and smartphones, everything happens more quickly—from on-the-spot printers generating incomprehensible quotes to rapid-fire questions texted by estimators in a hurry. If one is moving in or out of a coop or condo involving COI’s, there are fresh complications such as move-in and move-out fees, booking the service elevator around restrictive time slots, and a host of other small, aggravating details and costs. In addition, pricing has increased across the boards.

Additionally, my clients’ motivation for moving is different from what formerly impelled them. Their lives are now more settled or have suddenly become unsettled.  They are no longer possessed with the same need to comfortably house their growing families or acquisitions. Instead, they are often laden down with possessions in a home filled with memories. And in I walk, for all intents and purposes their new on-call (yet non-licensed) psychologist. Most take my “therapist’s advice” and are overjoyed with the opportunity to hand over all responsibility and go about their lives as normal. After the initial consultation, they leave the mountain of details, planning, organizing, and coordinating to me—and smile as they hand over the keys and the alarm codes. 

Then there are the few hand-wringers who fall into the traps described above. They worry. They obsess. They get in the way. Their subliminal reactions to moving take center stage and, as a result, the process is more stressful than it has to be.

My advice to anyone who is moving is that they should leave the details to the professionals. When I first meet with clients, I hand them a comprehensive “To Do” list that should give them enough (and not too much) to occupy their time. If at all possible, I strongly recommend (some might say insist) that the client physically move out the day the movers start packing. Pack a suitcase or two with enough clothing for 10 days and go to your second home, your children, a friend, a hotel, an AirBnB, or a spa. Enjoy your time. I’ll be taking care of everything back at the old and new homesteads. 

Watching strangers taking over your home, touching your things, and chatting amongst themselves as if this were just another day can be upsetting for some people. It can actually bring out feelings of anger, defensiveness, and hostility. I recall one client who would not let the movers up to the second floor of her home. She insisted on hand-carrying items downstairs to be packed—and then she told us to leave because she was tired. No wonder! In reality, she was still angry over a divorce that happened years ago, and these emotions bled into the logistical process of the move. She is the reason for my asking clients to vacate when the movers arrive. 

Everyone has their own personal history. Sometimes, a move will exhume buried emotions and deep-seated feelings of regret, sorrow, and more. It is understandable that moving is an emotional challenge, as we are not only boxing up our treasured possessions but also leaving the four comfortable walls where we laughed and dined with family and found relaxation after a trying day. Our homes hold so many memories, both joyful and difficult. But just like the possessions that fill it, a home is simply made of raw materials—wood and plaster, stone and sheet rock. Letting go and moving on can be torturous for some and the beginning of a new and exciting adventure for others. When possible, I find myself motivating my clients and getting them excited about the positive side of their difficult transition.  

I have found myself in the position of temporary therapist for my clients on many occasions, and am happy to (briefly) fill that role. When you are actually in people’s drawers, you get to know them very well in a very short period of time. I remember their stories. I can tell you what was where in their homes—that vase on the corner table, that couch in front of the hearth. After 14 years, I can still see their faces and hear the sounds of their voices. 

But as anyone will tell you, I have a horrible memory for proper nouns. So please do not ask me for the names of any of my former clients, as I will tell you that I cannot remember. As with any good therapist, their secrets are in permanent storage.

Questions or comments? As always, feel free to contact me!

Best wishes,

Subscribe to Receive My Newsletter: